FLOWERY BRANCH — Tony Gonzalez remembers talking to Michael Strahan after the former New York Giants defensive lineman won a Super Bowl title in his final game.
Talk about going out in style.
"That's the way you want to do it," Gonzalez said Thursday. "That's every athlete's dream. I don't care what sport it is. You'd love to win a championship and leave. That's where I'm at now."
It took him 16 years to finally win a playoff game.
Now, he's two victories away from a Super Bowl championship with the Atlanta Falcons, two wins away from going out the same way Strahan did.
"There's no doubt I could play this game another three years if I wanted to, and at a high level too," the 36-year-old Gonzalez insisted. "But there comes a point in your career where you've gotten everything you ever wanted from this game."
Everything except a ring.
"Really, the only reason I played the last couple of years was for an opportunity like this," Gonzalez said. "Now that it's presented itself, I feel closure coming on. But there's more closure to take care of. It's about winning this week, and winning the Super Bowl."
The top-seeded Falcons (14-3) will host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in the NFC championship game, looking to reach the Super Bowl for just the second time in franchise history. Even though Gonzalez has not fully committed to retirement, there's a definite sense in the Atlanta locker room of wanting to give him the ultimate going-away gift.
He's given so much to the game, catching more passes than anyone in NFL history except Jerry Rice. He's given so much to the Falcons over the last four years, working with younger players and setting an example that all were encouraged to follow.
"We know what he's capable of doing on the football field," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "But Tony is a mentor to so many players in that locker room. He's not a guy of many words, but when he comes to work, he comes to work. We always tell the new guys in the locker room, 'See that guy over there? Mimic what he's doing.'"
Gonzalez's influence has surely rubbed off on players such as receiver Julio Jones, already a Pro Bowler in just his second season. Even Roddy White, who already was one of the NFL's better receivers when Gonzalez was acquired by the Falcons after a dozen seasons in Kansas City, has picked up a thing or two since No. 88 arrived.
"I'd like to think I've helped them with their routine," Gonzalez said. "I'm a big believer in routine. Yeah, you can talk about being great. When young guys come in, I ask them their goals. They all want to be Pro Bowl players.
Well, how are you going to get there? You can't just say you're going to work hard. That's so ambiguous."
He'll encourage them to settle on some well-defined goals — say, catching 50 balls before practice, 50 balls during the workout, and 50 balls afterward. Whatever works, make it a habit. And keep looking for ways to make the program even better.
Even at his age, Gonzalez still tweaks his regimen if he comes upon something new that might give him an edge.
The 49ers (12-4-1) will have their hands full trying to defend everyone in what Gonzalez calls the PYP offense — Pick Your Poison. But the ageless tight end could be even more of a factor Sunday, facing a defense that doesn't stray far from its base packages and relies heavily on its linebackers in coverage.
As good as they are, Pro Bowlers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith could have their hands full trying to cover Gonzalez, even if he has lost a step or two.
"He's still playing at a high level for them. He's still making big plays for them," Willis said. "He may not be as fast as he used to be, but he's really crafty and knows how to get open."
For Gonzalez, the idea of working harder than anyone else was instilled at an early age, but the benefits of setting a routine became apparent in his second season with the Chiefs. Facing high expectations after moving into the starting lineup, he dropped 17 passes.
He knew something had to change, so he started reading books on other great athletes, from Rice to Michael Jordan.
"When I looked at their routines, I couldn't believe how much work goes into being a great player," Gonzalez said. "I knew if I wanted to be great, this is what I've got to do. I came up with a routine. I started adding to it and changing it a little every year, but it kind of stays the same too. I'm always looking for an advantage."
His methods have sure paid off. Gonzalez has 1,242 receptions and 103 touchdown catches, sixth on the career list. This season, he led the Falcons with 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight touchdowns.
Gonzalez was really at his best last week in the divisional playoff against Seattle. He made a brilliant touchdown catch in the back of the end zone, leaping up to snatch the ball away from a defender like the basketball player he was in college, boxing out for a rebound. He made a couple of other impressive grabs when it looked like he was completely covered.
Finally, after the Falcons squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter and seemed on the verge of handing Gonzalez another playoff loss, he hauled in a 19-yard pass, picking up a few extra yards with a nifty move after the catch, to set up Matt Bryant's winning 49-yard field goal with just 8 seconds remaining.
When it was done, Gonzalez broke down in tears — the first time he can ever remember crying after a win.
Of course, he had never won in the playoffs, losing his first five tries.
"I was thinking, 'I guess it's not meant to be,'" he recalled. "Then to go out there and get it done, to get that victory the way we did, the floodgates opened in me."
After waiting 16 years to get that first postseason victory, the idea of winning two more in the next three weeks doesn't seem so farfetched.
If that happens, Gonzalez sounds like any uncertainty over his planned retirement will surely be wiped away.
"That's the goal: win a championship and get out of here," he said. "We're right at the door. The door is opening for us. We've just got to push it open a little bit more."